INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -
A burgeoning Indianapolis suburb has paid the wife of an influential
congressman $580,000 since 2015 for legal consulting she largely does from
the Washington area, an unusually large sum even in a state rife with highly
paid government contractors, according to a review by The Associated Press.
the wife of Republican Rep. Luke Messer, makes $20,000 a month working as a
contract attorney for Fishers, according to the AP’s review of public
documents. That’s drastically more than either of the city’s two staff
attorneys are paid - or many other government lawyers in Indiana.
Legal experts say
the agreement, which pays about $240,000 a year, doesn’t appear to break any
rules because state law allows considerable leeway for governments to enter
into professional service contracts. But it could create an awkward
situation for her husband, who was elected to Congress in 2012 on a pledge
to “stop the reckless spending” and has plans to challenge Democratic Sen.
Joe Donnelly next year.
Meanwhile, many of
Fishers’ daily legal needs are handled by salaried lawyers, or other local
law firms. That leaves a limited work portfolio for Messer, a 2001 graduate
of the University of Tennessee College of Law, who is free to take on
additional clients and whose contractual duties to the city include
“providing legal advice and services” with an emphasis on economic
In recent years,
Republican-dominated Indiana and local governments in the state have
increasingly replaced government workers with contractors in a bid to drive
down the headcount of public employees.
Former Gov. Mike
Pence, now the vice president, employed trusted aide Josh Pitcock to be the
state’s federal lobbyist through a lucrative contract that paid $23,000 a
month, an arrangement his administration argued exempted Pitcock from ethics
rules that applied to rank-and-file workers. Seema Verma, a Pence protege
who is the current head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services,
also had a lucrative contract, though her duties were similar to those of a
high-level state administrator.
Messer and Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness, a rising Republican star in Indiana,
say the arrangement has been beneficial to the city and helped usher in an
era of “unprecedented” economic success in the growing suburb of about
“It is not unusual
for municipalities to seek specialized contracted legal services for such
technical and nuanced legal documents,” Fadness said in a statement. “The
size of the City of Fishers, combined with the volume of economic
development activity, merits her specialized legal services.”
Messer pointed to
an IKEA home furnishings store and a high-end driving range, which are both
under construction, as examples of high-profile projects she helped the city
But not everyone is
convinced Fishers’ taxpayers are getting a good deal.
flabbergasted,” said Indiana University public affairs Professor Paul Helmke,
a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne who also is a lawyer. “What does she
do each month that can’t be done by the other folks on staff - particularly
when she’s not there? Even if she were the only lawyer for a city, that
would still be an extraordinary amount of money.”
Messer has worked
for Fishers since 2010, primarily through a firm that handled the town’s
legal needs over three decades. But after a major restructuring in 2015, the
city created its own legal department and the firm lost out.
did not and secured the contract despite living out of state in McLean,
Virginia, records show.
Before moving away
when her husband took office in 2013, Jennifer Messer regularly staffed
Fishers meetings, attended planning groups and sat in on closed-door
executive sessions, where sensitive legal matters are often discussed. But
after her husband’s election, Messer’s attendance dropped sharply and she
hasn’t been present at a meeting since 2015, records show.
She now lists her
mother-in-law’s Greensburg, Indiana home as her in-state business address -
the same address where her husband is registered to vote, after the family
sold their home in nearby Shelbyville.
In a recent podcast
with a local resident, Fishers’ lead staff attorney Chris Greisl described
Messer’s role as supplementary to the legal department’s day-to-day work.
“I just get pulled
in so many different directions,” said Greisl, who makes about $100,000 less
a year than Messer. “I don’t have the time to dedicate and to be in every
single place at once.”
Messer says her pay
is commensurate with her level of experience and says she regularly submits
detailed statements of the work she performs so the city can track her
by the city which document her billable hours in April 2016 and April 2017
indicate she did not work full-time either of those months. The city did not
provide a complete accounting of Messer’s billable hours, as requested by
contract, Messer earns more than Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s top attorneys,
who generally make between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, records show. Her
pay also surpasses the head attorney for the city of Indianapolis, who tops
out at $118,999 a year, according to figures provided by the city.
“It sure seems to
me like it’s a sweetheart deal for the Messers, but the taxpayers in Fishers
are being short changed,” said Julia Vaughan of the left-leaning government
watchdog group Common Cause Indiana.
But Messer and
Fadness say it is not fair to compare the contract work she does for the
city to salaried government attorneys around the state. And they say the
arrangement has actually helped the city save money.
by Fishers show the city initially saved money on core legal services under
the current arrangement. But they are on track to spend more this year after
hiring an additional staff attorney.
“We have a dynamic,
successful team, and I am proud to be a part of it,” Messer said.